The ACLU is Back!

by Brandon Summers | January 15, 2023

I’d be lying to you if [several] Las Vegas street performers didn’t have beef with the ACLU of Nevada; and I’d be lying to you if I said I never have beef with them. However, my personal grievances with the organization are no more. Through the work the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada has done the last twelve months, they have regained my trust and admiration. Their efforts should be worthy of everyone’s admiration.

From my point of view, most street performers are ignorant to the history, victories, and function of the ACLU (and many believe the ACLU owes them one). The reality is that NO ONE would be legally busking on Fremont Street or The Strip without their intervention in the 90’s and 2000’s. The ACLU of Nevada, under the leadership of Gary Peck, sued both the City of Las Vegas and Clark County (several times) to establish that the sidewalks were NOT owned by casinos. The sidewalks are in fact public right-of-ways, and therefore traditional free speech forums. The ACLU of Nevada got on my radar after I started having run-ins with the police in 2010. Around that time, I was being told by LVMPD police officers that I was violating county ordinances, so I did my research. That’s when I learned of the Suze Banasik lawsuit that the ACLU NV filed (2009). Maggie Mcletchie, the attorney who worked with me to sue the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department in 2020, was employed by the ACLU at the time and was instrumental in fighting for Banasik (this lawsuit established a temporary injunction and a MOU). Also in 2009-2010, the ACLU was continuing it’s work to liberate Fremont Street. The great recession, the migration of Hollywood Walk of Fame costume characters to Las Vegas, and the short-lived golden era of Vegas busking was in full swing.

The trouble with the ACLU probably started when Gary Peck left. Dane Claussen took the reins in 2011, but only stuck around for two years. Tod Story became interim executive director in February 2013 before becoming the permanent executive director months later. The following year, Allen Lichenstein, a private practice attorney who worked for the ACLU for nearly 20 years. During that time of transition, Clark County was working HARD to rid The Strip of performers, vendors, and the homeless. Their strategy included creating a bogus off-strip court to deal with chronic nuisance misdemeanors (namely vagrancy and obstructive use of sidewalk), adopting new ordinances to eliminate the use of car batteries/inverters (which powered performers’ speakers and electronics), installing state-of the-art surveillance cameras, and ramping up police presence. If the ACLU was actively involved in slowing down the unconstitutional practices on the horizon, it would be news to me. By the time Tod Story was in charge, the damage was done; and he did nothing to intervene on behalf of buskers until 2015. I would argue that his intervention with the Fremont Street lottery system was actually an act of complicity. I will never forgive him for doing a fucking press conference with City of Las Vegas and Fremont Street Experience LLC– the two entities that are chiefly responsible for the harm that Fremont Street buskers have endured.

Fremont Street Experience LLC, ACLU of Nevada, and City of Las Vegas hold joint press Conference (2015)

Let’s fast forward to January 2021. In steps Athar Haseebullah as executive director. At the time, Athar was a 33-year-old Vegas native, an attorney who graduated from a prestigious Historically Black University (HBCU), and happens to be Muslim. He’s the first non-white person to lead the ACLU of NV and he was detained by LVMPD during a Black Lives Matter rally in 2020. Representative politics has certainly had it’s shortcomings in recent years and I remained skeptical. But something incredible happened. I received an email from the ACLU’s Legal Director, Chris Peterson, in early 2021. Three years earlier, I submitted a complaint via the ACLU’s intake form, but it went unanswered. But now the lines of communication were being reestablished. I watched their work the rest of the year with cautious optimism and started to gain confidence in their commitment to community issues.

And then the moment came— County Commissioner Tick Segerblom (the weed guy) thought it would be a good idea to designate pedestrian bridges as “crosswalks” to criminalize any kind of stagnation. This was a direct shot at people experiencing houselessness and it would definitely impact street performers. I don’t completely fault Segerblom. This idea had been in the playbook of County Commissioners and LVMPD for some time, but the fatal stabbing of an off-duty, out-of-town cop was the excuse they needed. Once I learned of this, I contacted Athar; and both he and Sophio Romeo, Senior Staff Attorney, sprung into action. On May 4, 2022, the ACLU got on the mic at a County Commissioners meeting and threatened to sue Clark County if they went forward with the ordinance.

ACLU of Nevada speaks in opposition of a county ordinance that was intended to make it illegal to stand still on a pedestrian bridge

I will tell you [county commissioners, LVMPD] if this bill is passed today in its current iteration we’ll be prepared to file a lawsuit within the next two weeks. We would rather avoid that and try to work towards a resolution.” – Athar Haseebullah, executive director of the ACLU Nevada

Weeks later, the ordinance vanished into thin air. The ACLU used this tactic at Las Vegas City Hall as well. And they made good on their promise to litigate by suing the City of Las Vegas in September 2022. In a short video published in December, box contortionist Kelvin Gordon and ACLU Legal Director Chris Peterson discuss the recent lawsuit Gordon v. City of Las Vegas. Peterson explains that the curfew, designed to keep adults under 21 years of age off the boulevard, was the last straw in their decision to sue. Once again, the ACLU of Nevada has our backs!

In the last two years, the ACLU has taken up several social justice issues in areas like cannabis, housing, traffic tickets and prisons. But this time, they haven’t forgotten about buskers. It’s fair to say they’ve returned to their former glory.

Kelvin Gordon (contortionist), Chris Peterson (ACLU Legal Director)

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Brandon Summers is a Las Vegas native, violinist, street performer, and advocate for spontaneous, unlicensed performance in public spaces. Summers has been busking for over ten years and has performed for Ciroc, Hudson Jeans, Netflix, JBL-Harman and many more. He is a graduate of Fort Valley State University where he majored in mathematics and holds BA in liberal studies.

One thought on “The ACLU is Back!

  1. One of the problems that Las Vegas had and probably still has was “Tips for photo’s people” who put on costumes of super heroes or famous people like Marilyn Monroe and demand money from people who took photo’s – these people use amendment rights to do what they do but they are not performers and their often aggressive demands for money was one of the excuses used by officials in their attempts to regulate street performing. The USA is the only country I have ever performed in where “Tips for Photo Costume people exist in mass” and they are definitely a blight on the Vegas street performing scene. I was in Vegas 2013 to 2015 but I left when I saw what was happening, at the time there were musicians, Breakers, Magicians, bucket drummers, a Ventriloquist, balloon modellers, human statues but none of it was cutting edge or generally to a standard you would see in Boston, Florida or Europe. The Vegas Street scene had a validity and should have been allowed to grow but troops of demanding “Show Girls” and “Tips for photos” people made it easy for Authorities to justify their actions, even when they were illegal or at the behest of casino’s. I understand why the ACLU didn’t want to get involved, its a minefield by solving or attempting to solve the problem you aid the grifters who make it hard for real street performers. I am glad that the ACLU has finally stood up but I wish there was a way of regulating the plethora of show Girls and tips for photo’s people without throttling real street performers.

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